Banksy and the Art of Public Discourse

Banksy and the Art of Public Discourse

“I love graffiti. I love the word. Some people get hung up over it, but I think they’re fighting a losing battle. Graffiti equals amazing to me. Every other type of art compared to graffiti is a step down—no two ways about it. If you operate outside of graffiti, you operate at a lower level. Other art has less to offer people, it means less, and it’s weaker. I make normal paintings if I have ideas that are too complex or offensive to go out on the street, but if I ever stopped being a graffiti writer I would be gutted. It would feel like being a basket weaver rather than being a proper artist.” (Swindle Magazine)

“I like the idea vandalism has contributed to the local economy,” his (Banksy) message said.”In Britain they always complain graffiti costs the taxpayer millions of pounds but that’s a load of rubbish. Graffiti is free. It’s painting things grey again that costs all the money. Purported message from Banksy regarding sale of his art in Bethlehem.(TIM BUTCHER)

The core of this paper is Banksy’s use of public space for political discourse and, in particular, his use of the wall that separates Palestinians from Israelis.

The paper will also discuss how and should public space be appropriated and used as a forum to generate discussion about issues important to communities and nations.

Banksy has used graffiti art in Britain for many years to express his views on the police, freedom, Iraq, class and other issues.

Banksy, British anarchist artist/graffiti artist, has built his reputation on two foundations: 1) his talent; and 2) the secrecy surrounding his identity. He has been able to avoid detection for over two decades. Stories about his identify have surfaced from time, but have never been substantiated. In 2006, the BBC online identified him as Robert or Robin Banks, a man with no formal art education.  Last year he was “outed” by The Daily Mail in London. The newspaper said his name was  Robin Gunningham and that he was a “former public schoolboy from middle-class suburbia.”  The article went on to describe a fairly boring and normal upbringing that could have applied to anyone, including such revelations as Gunningham was a gifted artist and was “nomadic.”  At the end of the article a caveat is given: “there is, of course, the possibility that the trail we have been following is a red herring.”

Banksy has said many times that he has no interest in ever revealing his identity.  He was quoted in Swindle magazine, “I figure there are enough self-appointed assholes trying to get their ugly little faces in front of you as it is.”  Yet, it is almost unbelievable in this age of media that someone could remain anonymous for so long. It is even more improbable in England, where surveillance video is everywhere, that somewhere along the way has not seen and taken a picture of him.

But the fact of the matter is, whoever he is, Banksy is very talented and has been creating serious art in the form of graffiti since 1980s. His graffiti is now selling millions of dollars worth of art.

Writing about Banksy has its disadvantages. For the most part, academics have ignored him, or more to the point, he has ignored them. No one knows who he really is so there is distinct possibility that he doesn’t really exist. There is only trace evidence (“his” work–do we even really know he’s a “he”?) of his existence. Most accounts of his activities are chronicled in newspapers that have a vested interest in promoting the news that sells. His dealers/agents have a vested interest in perpetuating the mystery (or could this be part of his/her persona—the unknowingness?).   The unknowingness, the anonymity, deliberately or not, is part of  Banksy’s persona.

But writing about Banksy also has its advantages. If no one really knows who the artist is, or where the artist is, or very much about him  it frees me to make stuff up and speculate on his motives.

We can also hypothesize that Banksy is a woman. It would be a perfect cover. Banksy usually speaks through his agent or representative. Even if they “know” the person purporting to be Banksy, it may be that person is a shill. And although there is a photo of  “Banksy” painting on the wall in Israel, his/her face is covered. It could have been one of Banksy’s fellow artists who are as talented as she/he is. They could paint and if arrested by Israeli police, Banksy’s identity would still be safe.

Traditionally, modern graffiti artists use spaces that are in transition or are in a pre-transition. Often these are in poorer neighborhoods that we see eventually transition to a more affluent and desirable neighborhood. Once a neighborhood starts to change for the “better,” contesting of space begins because contesting it is about the money. Then the arguments begin to be about who has the right to be represented in public spaces. What are the goals of graffiti writers? Is at least part of it about this controversy?

Graffiti has been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  It has been found in Pompeii, the pyramids, ancient cave drawings and on the walls of catacombs by early Christians resisting persecution, to the cities of today (Rahn 2002, 167).  Duchamp is an early defiler and defacer in the style of Banksy and others. Duchamp created “Rectified Readymade,” in which he added a small mustache and the letters L.H.O.O.Q. which roughly translated means, “She’s got a hot ass”  (Varnedoe, Gopnik 1990, 77).

According to Varnedde and Gopnik graffiti went through an artistic re-examination  vis a vis the Surrealist movement of the 1920s and 1930s.  They were interested in graffiti’s unconscious motivations and use of the grotesque (See Figure 3). Brassai as well had an appreciation for graffiti.  Brassai’s was informed  “by his belief that graffiti writings were akin to cave art, as well as by a familiar Surrealist association  between the glamorously  ‘dangerous’  mysteries  of urban lowlife and the marvels of the deeper psyche” (Varnedde and Gopnik 1990). (see photo on right, Atlanta, GA graffiti, Burgamy, 2006)

Vagrants and hobos of the 1930s used signs and symbols to communicate with each other. The writing gave out practical information about where to find shelter and food without being discovered by the train company security. Graffiti helped them make sense of their relationships within the ‘community’ of hobos. (Rahn 2002, 167) Graffiti writers share this sense of community. They use appropriated surfaces to communicate to one another, to share a bond, to mark territory, as well as thumb their noses at authority.

In describing where graffiti artists’ venture, Reisner wrote, “the atmosphere is secret, confining, subterranean and conspiratorial…. In circumstances like these a man is likely to assert himself graphically, a silent means of inscription” (Reisner 1971, 26).

During my experience in Atlanta and surrounding communities photographing and interviewing graffiti artists ( ) I learned that most of their graffiti is in places the average person would not venture, such as in rail and auto underpasses (like the one under the Jimmy Carter throughway)  viaducts, and the like. In Atlanta, most people are familiar with the Krog Street tunnel, which has long been a favorite venue for graffiti writers.  For many years it was considered a safe area and the artists could paint and draw at will.  Two years ago I was told (but never confirmed) that it was now verboten and anyone caught would be prosecuted. The turnover in the tunnel has slowed considerably and that would give credence to law enforcement taking renewed interest in taking legal action.

There are a few graffiti artists who deliberately seek out places that are virtually inaccessible.  In Atlanta, Dose, Born, and Hense are some of the tags seen on the tops of buildings or the back of a towering Coca Cola billboard.  The more inaccessible the “spatial conquest,” the more the respect afforded the artist. A Philadelphia graffiti artist named Cornbread sprayed his name on the wings of a TWA jet. “The conquest of territory even in fantasy is always an act performed for an audience. Locations have meaning; to claim access to an inaccessible location is to make a claim of primacy for oneself” (Ley, Cybriwsky  1991, 493).

The idea of public space, a place where politics, commerce and play intermingles, is an old one.  The Greek agora was such a place where many different political opinions and diverse social perspectives could be encountered (Young 119).    But even given this ideal description the reality was that these places were exclusionary.  The people in these spaces were homogenous and were people of power and prestige.  Citizenship was a right granted to a select few and denied many others, including women and slaves (Mitchell  1995, 116-121).

In many democracies the right to public space comes with many rules and regulations. Spaces that were once open to the underprivileged, the homeless, and the disaffected are usually in the transitional areas that aren’t contested.  It is only when the space becomes a commodity, useful to commerce, that the space becomes contested.  Then marginal people who occupy the space become undesirables or criminals so measures have to be taken by instruments of the state.  Control is exercised by closing public spaces by declaring them havens for the homeless and drug users (Mitchell  1995, 117).

It is in these contested spaces where graffiti writers will express themselves and articulate their feelings. Cabbagetown in Atlanta has been going through the cycle of gentrification.  As property values go up marginalized groups that include graffiti writers use the area to express themselves and mark the territory with their art.  As one of them, Cape, told me, “I don’t care if it flies for 24 minutes or 24 hours, I did it and its mine.”   Graffiti is a way of defending turf, expressing the self, that takes place the world over.  It is the politics of self expression and self preservation standing against an inevitable onslaught of commercialization.

Since Banksy is an anarchist/performance artist/graffiti artist, he has challenged the notion of public space and what activities are appropriate in public places. Retaking/reclaiming public space has been an ongoing contestation with graffiti artists vs. major cities. Banksy, in his art and politics, has been using public spaces to express dissent. His imagery is highly political, pointed, funny, and satirical. In specific his art is, among other things, art as anti-war, anti-surveillance, anti-establishment and anti-capitalist.  He receives worldwide attention wherever he paints but the work on the Separation Wall distinguished itself.

Construction of the fence, called Separation Wall, or Segregation Wall (Banksy 2006, 136) began in 2000 and continues to this day. The wall is a 25 foot tall barrier that stretches over 700km or 434 miles. It has been and continues to be built, by the Israeli government. This barrier is a meant to provide security to Israel from suicide bombers and other terrorist acts coming from Palestinian jihadists.  It was initially intended to prevent passage of motor vehicles. But in 2001 Premier Ariel Sharon came under great pressure from citizens in Israel. Suicide bombing was increasing and people were demanding protection.  The Israeli cabinet approved construction and in 2002 the building of the Separation Wall began. (Usher 2005, 33)  At over 30 feet high the wall is three times higher than the Berlin Wall. To give some perspective, the wall would stretch from Panama City Beach, FL to Chattanooga, TN (Usher 2005, 25).
The Separation Wall has been the subject of much controversy. The UN has declared it illegal and ordered it dismantled (Usher 2005, 35).  Israel continues to cite it as a primary deterrent against suicide bombers. But essentially it has made people of Palestine prisoners in an open prison (Usher 2005,  25).

Here, in an interview in Swindle magazine, is what Banksy was purported to have said regarding the conditions of working at the wall and the type of art he did there:

The murals you did in Palestine, I would assume, involved personal risk. You’re there, and you could definitely get some people pissed off and put yourself in jeopardy.

B: Every graffiti writer should go there. They’re building the biggest wall in the world. I painted on the Palestinian side, and a lot of them weren’t sure about what I was doing. They didn’t understand why I wasn’t just writing “down with Israel” in big letters and painting pictures of the Israeli prime minister hanging from a rope. And maybe they had a point. The guy that I stayed with got five days with the “dirty bag” for waving a Palestinian flag out a window. The dirty bag is when Israeli security services get a sack, wipe their shit on it, and put the bag over your head while your hands are tied behind your back. I spat out my falafel as he was explaining that to me, but he just goes, “That’s nothing. My cousin got it for two weeks without a break.” It’s difficult to come home and hear people complaining about reruns on TV after that. It’s very hard for the locals to paint illegally over there. We certainly weren’t doing it under the cloak of darkness; you’d get shot. We were out in the middle of the day, making it very clear we were tourists. Twice, we had serious trouble with the army, but one time the Palestinian border patrol pulled up in an armored truck. The Israeli government makes a big fuss about how they own the wall, despite building it right through the farmland of Palestinians who have been there for generations, so the Palestinian border police don’t give a shit if you paint it or not. They parked between the road and us, gave us water, and just watched. It’s probably the only time I’m ever going to paint whilst being covered by a cop from a roof-mounted submachine gun.

Did they realize that it favored the Palestinian perspective?

B: I have sympathy for both sides in that conflict, and I did receive quite a bit of support from regular Israelis, but if the Israeli government had known we were going over there to do a sustained painting attack on their wall, there’s no way that we’d have been tolerated. They’re very paranoid. They don’t want the wall to be an issue in the West. On the Israeli side of the wall they bank it up with soil and plant flowers so you don’t even know its there. On the Palestinian side it’s just a fucking huge mass of concrete  (Swindle Magazine).

The Separation Wall is one in a “long” line of contested wall space.   The Great Wall of China, The Berlin Wall and the wall being built between the United States and Mexico are additional examples of contested spaces.

The Berlin Wall was covered in graffiti on the West side and barren on the communist Eastern side. The blank gray East Berlin side was a telling picture as to who had access to the space.  The wall between Mexico and the United States is an ugly metal wall topped in many places by barbed wire.  The Mexican/U.S. border fence is, in my opinion, a fence that only suits the right leaning politicians and their constituents.  It is a space that will continually be contested, not only by Mexican immigrants but by citizens in the U.S. who oppose this method for controlling the border.

Banksy states in his above interview that on the Israeli side they plant flowers while the Palestinian side is “just a fucking huge mass of concrete.”  Banksy  has appropriated  that “mass of concrete” and changed parts of it to  create a vision or dream of opening the wall or of no wall at all.  Images of someone pulling an imaginary curtain aside and seeing through a cartoon living room with windows (see figure 1) opening to a realistic green forest and a snow white covered mountain in the background.  That scene is a real fantasy but conjures a different place on the other side.  A place of openness and freedom can be found and experienced not on the other side of the wall but without the wall.

Painting on the Separation Wall, no matter how great the intentions doesn’t always have the desired effect.  The barrier makes those inside it cynical and contentious. They are rightfully more than a little suspicious and skeptical.   Banksy had a conversation with a gentleman on the inside of the wall.   Old Man: “You paint the wall, you make it look beautiful.”  Banksy: “Thanks.”  Old Man:  “We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall, go home” (Banksy 2006, 142).

Banksy made one of his several trips to Palestine in 2007. He brought with him four other graffiti artists:  Blu from Italy, Sam3 from Spain, an associate Paul Insect and another artist from Britain, Gee Vaucher.  For several days they painted the wall and met with other artists.  They rented  a former fast food restaurant in Manger Square where they sold art by westerners and Palestinians.   In order to encourage much needed tourism in the area, the art for sale could only be purchased on site.  The sale netted over one million dollars which was donated to local charities  (Kennard 2008, 39).

These are positive ways in which art can make a difference in awareness to a political point of view.  A painting or sculpture in a gallery is more academic than effective.  The Palestinians see the gray wall every day. Its meaning is quite clear. However, through the power of Banksy and others painting and stenciling, the world sees the wall from a new perspective. I had read about the wall and only acknowledged it as a benign safety measure to protect Israel from terrorists. Its meaning to the people of Palestine was off my radar of consciousness. Through his art I now see the Separation/Segregation Wall in a different, more insightful way. I can contemplate its size and dimensions and grayness as if there was a wall running between Decatur and Atlanta. It is the simplest approach to a difficult problem. Unwilling to compromise and consider real solutions, the problem was “solved” by a remedy as old as the Great Wall of China.

The conclusion to the core issue of Banksy’s methods of public discourse on the wall is that his techniques and imagery are quite different—and even more effective and affecting–than the images and words he has used in other places and spaces. Banksy uses his art to criticize the Separation/Segregation Wall not directly but indirectly. He doesn’t attack the Israelis. His images are not as political or bitingly satirical as works he has done in England.

So while Banksy remains directly in the tradition of previous graffiti artists who stood up for the rights of the marginalized by laying claim to and attempting to “own” public space, he has taken the art form to a new, more inclusive, level, particularly in his graffiti on the Separation/Segregation Wall. Like Jonathan Swift Banksy is a master of satire and wielding  a sharp sword.  His images cut straight to the political chase whether its parliament, the police,  war or starving African children with a “I Hate Mondays” tshirt.  (see image on left, Banksy, I Hate Mondays)

When art makes the transition from being purely aesthetic (evoking a “beautiful” or emotional experience) to directly responding to or protesting current circumstances via contested content, there often begins a discussion about what constitutes “art.”   This question is always in the background where graffiti is concerned. Interestingly, Banksy’s work on the Wall does not fall toward either extreme, but is a subtle critique.  Yet his images gain power from subtlety and are emotionally evocative as he places the emphasis on the West Bank as a prison and his drawings as the dreams and hopes of the Palestinians trapped inside.

Bibliography (Chicago)

Banksy. 2006. Banksy: Wall and Piece. London: The Random House

Group Limited.

TIM BUTCHER. Banksy  Art on the Block in Bethlehem. The Daily Telegraph 2007. bethlehem/68189/ (accessed November 1, 2009)

Kennard, P. 2008. Art attack. New Statesman. 21:38-40.

Lagerquist, P. Fencing the Last Sky: Excavating Palestine after Israel’s “Separation

Wall”. Journal of Palestine Studies. 33:5-35.

Ley, D. and R.  Cybriwsky. 1974. Urban Graffiti as Territorial Markers. 4:491-


Mitchell, D.  1995. The End of Public Space? People’s Park, Definitions of the Public,

and Democracy. Annals of the Association of American Geographers.  85:108-


Rahn, J. 2002. Painting without Permission: Hip-hop Graffiti Subculture. Westport:

Greenwood Publishing Group.

Reisner, R. (1971). Graffiti: Two thousand years of wall writing. Chicago:

Henry Gegnery Company.

Swindle Magazine., Banksy the

Naked Truth (accessed November 7, 2009).

Temple, Julia. 2001. Graffiti and the Writing Arts of  Early  Modern England.

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Usher,  G.  2005. Unmaking Palestine: On Israel, the Palestinians, and the Wall.

Journal of Palestine Studies. 35:25-43.

Varnedde, Kirk and Gopnik, Adam. 1990. High & Low: Popular Culture in

Modern Art.  New York: The Museum of Modern Art.  85:108-133.

Calvin Burgamy

November 18, 2009

Contemporary Art 4700/Susan Richmond

Banksy and the Art of Public Discourse

At Last: fini!

Comparing            Robert Frank           &                      Emmet Gowin

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears? 

America by Allen Ginsberg

I SING the Body electric;
The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul. 

I Sing the Body Electric by Walt Whitman

This research paper compares Robert Frank and his book The Americans to Emmet Gowin and his book Photographs. The theme I explore is the concept of family and the influence of that concept on their work. I examine Frank’s photographic interpretation of his  larger adopted American family and Gowin’s photographs of his wife and her family.
Robert Frank’s point of view was that of an outsider looking in.  Born in Switzerland and naturalized in the United States, Frank traveled the United States seeking, not only to escape Nazi persecution in Europe, but to gain success as an artist.  He had been working in commercial photography in Switzerland and, according to Frank, was “influenced by the standards of perfection in graphics and photography.”  Experience in advertising gave him a strong sense of aesthetics as well as a vast working knowledge of the technical aspects of camera operation (Greenough 2009,  9).   Another important skill Frank perfected in Switzerland was taught to him by an advertising photographer, Michael Folksinger.   It was the technique of printing 2 1/4 contact prints of his negatives. Wolfensinger showed him how to glue the contacts on cards and group them by subject and theme; this provided a valuable method of evaluating the photographs and weighing their relative strength, significance, and relationship (Greenough 2009, 11).   This technique would influence and assist him as he struggled to sequence, logically and emotionally,  the 83 images out of 28,000 that he selected for his publication.
In Frank’s draft of the Guggenheim grant application he wrote that he intended “to photograph the U.S.A….people in the midst of industrialization… and the effect it has on them….The aspirations of manual workers in comparison to white collar employees.  The U.S.A. is the country that is evolving more rapidly than any other country and my project is bound to be incomplete but I am sure it will be a vivid and valuable report.  Such a project can only be executed by complete independence” (Greenough 2009, 151).  Reading Frank’s draft reveals English is not Frank’s native language.  But  although  he hadn’t been in the country long he forged friendships with other artists such as Walker Evans,  who would essentially write the grant and shepherd it through the Guggenheim committee. Evans testified to Frank’s artistic abilities.  “This man is probably the most gifted of the younger photographers today”(Greenough 2009).  After receiving the Guggenheim Frank  began his journey through America.

The resulting  book  The Americans, is generally categorized as pessimistic and downbeat. Initially critics panned the book (Szarkowski 1978, 19).   Frank’s style, to some, showed a sloppiness and  lack of respect for the art of photography.  The images were grainy, angled and some were out of focus.  America of the 50s didn’t want to be portrayed this way. Frank’s technique was not in the mainstream and was out of step with photographic convention.   Frank was revealing an America that was on the fast track and in many of  the photographs there is the sense of the movement, immediacy, and spontaneity (Jno 1982).  What Frank captured though was that an America on the go left many behind.  “These are images in which “everythingness” (from Kerouac) is based on difference” (Wagner 2006,  272).
Emmet Gowin on the other hand, as far as geography and birth, is the quintessential family insider. He was born in Danville, Virginia where most of the photographs in Photographs were taken. Most of the images were of his wife, Edith, and her immediate family. The images were very personal and conveyed a sense of familiarity, closeness, and sensuality. There is an earthiness, a sense of the pristine and primeval in Gowin’s Photographs. There are photographs of hog slaughter, urine, grass, dirt, sex, motherhood and fertile fields. The images conjure myth, flesh and a kind of sorcery. The Ice Fish, Mud Wasps Nests and Edith with Berry Necklace have a solemn, respectful earthiness.  In the context of the whole book there  is a sensual  quality to the ice,  something pagan  about the  rough mud nests, and something very carnal in the image of  Edith with the flora necklace hanging between her breasts as she stands framed by leaves and bushes.  Gowin felt at home and through his images he revealed the familial connections, the earthly connections of people to each other and the land.

Burgamy: One of the things I’ve been thinking about in this article about your work and about Frank’s work is that in the front of your book “Photographs” you said “I entered into a family freshly different from my own.”  And I look at Franks work, you know a Swiss, naturalized American and in the interviews I’ve read with him he said how excited he was when he came to the United States and how new it was to him. For him to embark on this new adventure and so I wanted to ask you about that quote, “I entered into a family freshly different from my own.”  What that meant to you and how it seems so natural the photographs you took of the family, it didn’t seem like they were new people other than the sense that you were excited about the images you were doing of the people, if that makes any sense.

Gowin: Well it does make sense and you know I can never be outside the experience and I always assume that the pictures that you print and give a public life to they have to be the clearest ones, the ones most able to take care of themselves. But you don’t really get to say that much in their defense they are rather vulnerable and fragile. So you want them to be the strongest as image and in a sense its funny Arbus says something like this; the more local they are the more universal, the more particular, meaningful of the exact moment in which they were done. It seems that makes the somehow have a more general value and people do have the feeling of understanding or recognizing something even if in your own experience its odd or peculiar. You might have had the experience and think to yourself this is quite, this is a strange thing I just saw and then somebody else is saying without knowing that “Oh I recognize this.” So the odder it is, the more particular, the more of a chance it has at being felt and understood by others. What I meant by  saying that my family is different from my wife’s family is pretty straightforward.  My family all, my mother and father both have advanced degrees, at a time when that was very rare. My father was very much a public person being involved with religion gave him a place to speak from and so his ideas were expressed all the time we knew what he thought. My wife’s family on the other hand were private people, workers, conversely, the irony of that is people who were public figures were actually private people and the private people were more open with themselves and didn’t try to hide their secret lives. So when I say freshly different, that is a strong contrast (Burgamy, 2009).

Frank in one interview with  Brian Wallis, in 1996 touched on the idea of the outsider.

BW: Yes, but it seems you still look at the United States with total amazement. Like for the first time. Don’t you feel that growing up in a foreign country allowed you to come here with new eyes?

RF: Let’s just say, I tended my old eyes and I didn’t buy glasses here. It’s a different world. You enter a different room. And this city gave me a lot. I was really inspired when I first arrived here, and it suited my temperament. It suited what I was doing–you know, film and photography (Wallis 1996, 74).

Although he is an outsider looking in, he is looking at America and New York City  with fresh eyes and  being inspired by it. The inspiration shows in his photographs not only in their quality and their presentation but by the volumes of photographs he took.

The first two photographs for comparison are Frank’s Motorama ( The Americans,  31) and Gowin’s Nancy and Dwayne (Photographs 33).

Motorama whose title suggests 1950s Americana advertising lingo like Bowl-0-rama, Dance-0-rama and a general fascination with cars and a gathering of cars and people  and a kind of go-go attitude. The name also suggests “diorama” and according to the  dictionary  definition:  “The word diorama can refer either to a nineteenth century mobile theatre device, or, in modern usage, a three-dimensional full-size or miniature model, sometimes enclosed in a glass showcase for a museum.”  So there is the possibility that Frank is familiar with both the nineteenth century usage of the word as well as the dioramas in the natural history museum in New York. Motorama is a diorama with the boys just as frozen as zebras.  The diorama/Motorama is a night photograph of young boys “hanging out”(Frank has placed this photograph in sequence with other youth “hanging out”) inside a fashionable and expensive car. They are well dressed and are lit by the dome light.  They are sitting well apart from each other, two in the back and one in the drivers seat. It is not an intimate gathering. One of the young men in the back is sitting in the middle directly under the dome light. The other boy in the back on the left is the only one staring ahead as if looking at Frank while he was photographing the scene. The boy in the front is behind the wheel. The other two boys don’t look particularly focused on any one thing. They are looking casually to their right.  The photograph appears to have been taken with a telephoto lens, giving it a voyeuristic look and feel.  It is a quintessential 50’s era scene. Nice car, good looking, well dressed boys but in contrast to the usual media/advertising look. Usually the car would be in motion and the boys laughing and looking confident in the car as Dad raced down the highway.  In Frank’s Motorama they look lost as they sit in the big car at night playing grown up but appearing bored  and  perhaps waiting on the next thing to happen.  The rich black tones and the artificial illumination of the dome light over the boy centered in the back, permeates the scene with a sense of loneliness; children brought up in a 50’s culture of seeking and reveling in American prosperity that is ultimately unfulfilling.  They have already been transported (literally) relocated via America’s rapid move to the suburbs, the building of interstate highways into the future the 1950s was racing toward.

Gowin’s photo of Nancy and Dwayne
in contrast to Motorama shows two children, members of Gowin’s extended family ,outdoors, embracing in the grass after fighting.  With the even, soft daylight, and warmer print the two bodies are perfectly centered in the composition, skin contrasted against the grass they embrace and the embrace is familiar. This photograph captures in loving manner sex, youth, love, and family.  It is at once (as Gowin says) simple and complicated, formal and informal: formal in composition, informal in subject matter.  Simple because they are children playing. Complicated because in their play, in their embrace there is something wonderfully and innocently sexual. If Gowin hadn’t told us they were wrestling and in fact angry at one point we would see two young lovers, caught in an embrace, holding one another. In an interview in 1997 Gowin says:

Nancy and Dwayne.  The two children, the boy and the girl, are so simple and so complicated. I remember in the micro moment, I was aware that her hand was whiter than everything else. They were fighting, and they fought long enough that they went from being mad to being reconciled, and then they were tired. And they were in this little moment of catching their breath. I always loved his heel. It’s a little bulb of a thing, and his shadow. In any case it’s good. It’s good in all of its aspects, down to details you could never, ever orchestrate.  (Gall, 1997)

Robert Frank had enormous influence on photography and that influence extended to Emmet Gowin.  Although their styles are vastly different here is what Gowin had to say about influence:

Gowin: No, no of course I have thought about all of this and just as I told you this story about seeing the  (Frank, ed. note) picture in the back of the book that matched the one in the front of the book, that realization of the emotional content of the picture was already a part of the viewer. When I made that discovery I realized the picture belonged to me in some way. I had participated in the making of the picture, you can say it this way you have to understand what I mean when I say it this way. The picture went unseen until I saw it and when I saw it, identified it, understood the exact temperature of that picture it was without an audience. And as audience I inherited something about that picture and what I inherited was something about myself. I was the one who decided the feeling in those two pictures was the same. And it’s very empowering it gave me a great sense of self knowledge and feeling of accuracy of observation. It may seem like a really tiny thing but what happens is that throughout your life all of your little chance experiences line up in various ways, and out of that builds a sense of confidence that the perception you’re having can be understood and can be trusted and while it absorbs and observes the large  world it’s also be created inside yourself. So it’s not something that totally outside of you nor is it totally inside of you. It’s where those two things come together.  Frank has been such an inspiration and such  a hero  no more so than Cartier-Bresson but Frank’s photos were located in a landscape that resembled the one I was living in. His pictures could have been made on any of our streets, still. And so what I did was I went around and it would be very hard not to make pictures that not look like Robert Frank. Once you knew what kind of attitude you held  and it was difficult to not see the world the way Frank saw it. That’s the way it is with any profoundly true experience it’s hard to go back. Once the door is open, you can’t close it (Burgamy, 2009).

San Francisco, 1956, p. 71.  This photograph Frank describes as one of his favorites.  Here is another excerpt from Bruce Wallis’ 1996 interview:

BW: So you think that your earlier photographs, like those in The Americans, were too voyeuristic, too appropriative?
RF: I didn’t feel then as I feel now. I am still affected by that one photograph of the man on the hill in San Francisco, the way he looked back at me. I think that’s why that’s my favorite picture in the book (Wallis, 1996).

Frank sees two sides of this image;  on the one hand viewing it as too voyeuristic, and the other naming it as his  favorite.  The image does capture a feeling of intruding, of isolation, dislike and mistrust that is carved out by the rich black and white tones of the couple sitting in the grass and contrasted by the white and soft gray tones of the city. The sidewalk further divides the couple from the city. This image creates the most unease of all the photographs in The Americans. We are intruding, along with Frank, on this couple’s space.  This photograph makes the viewer uncomfortable; we want to turn away. We are invading private space and witnessing the reaction of the couple whose suspicions are governed by years of marginalization. They are a part of the American family that has been disenfranchised. We see them sitting at a great distance from the city, watching from afar.  They are not a part of the 1950s American dream.  Their plight is not recognized by the mainstream and it is images like this that critics found disturbing. It ran counter to the prevailing power structures.  It showed the American family divided along lines of race.
Racism was assumed, just the background of every day life.  But it the 50s people were starting to feel uncomfortable about it, it was just nudging their consciousness and sense of fairness, they were just starting to have to face racism and its consequences.
On a greater scale, Americans were enjoying prosperity without having to yet acknowledge the human suffering and the  price for it .  San Francisco is one of the memorable images that put another chink in the horrible armor of racism and segregation.

Butchering. Near Chatham, Va., 1970, p. 53.  In this photograph the butcher is staring at Gowin. He appears only mildly interested and momentarily distracted from his  task of butchering hogs. Two hogs are strung up and one lays on the ground, dead. A trough of steam  is in the back center. The steam arising  presumably from entrails of the hogs still warm after their speedy removal.  The slaughter appears  corporeal, coarse, and pragmatic.   Gowin’s use of vignetting changes the image’s  space and gives the photograph  an unusual voyeuristic quality.  In one manner the vignetting adds mystery to what could be a ritual or secret ceremony performed in the back of the barn.  The vignetting also is unusual in the sense that the butcher appears to be  casually studying   us while we are looking at him.  The black man’s look  in Frank’s image of San Francisco is discomfiting while the man’s look in this photograph is not.  The viewer isn’t made to feel as they are intruding.  The vignetting was somewhat of an accident. Gowin used an 8 x 10  camera with too short a lens.  At first he would trim the circle out but later found he liked the shape. He thought the lens “contributed to a particular description of space and that the circle itself was already a powerful form” (Gowin, 101).  The circle amplifies the content of the image. It is as if we looking back in time when people ate what they killed.  This is an up close and personal view of a process no longer experienced by the vast majority of Americans.  The slaughter of animals is out of sight and out of mind.  Gowin puts us into proximity to the slaughter but the vignetting provides a space or distance from which to view. It is a window into a life that for some is normal and  everyday, although it may cause some viewers uneasiness.
In conclusion,  the photographic interpretation of Frank’s American family differs in style and substance from Gowin’s intimate extended family.   Frank’s vision was to observe and document America. His photographs revealed an America riddled  with  racism, loneliness and economic inequality. His photos provided an intense and compelling view into a drama that was playing out in the background of 1950s success stories. His spontaneous, grainy and sometimes out of focus images were carefully arranged documents that exposed forgotten segments of the American family.  Frank said, “he was always looking outside, trying to look inside, trying to say something that is true “(Greenough, xxi).

Gowin on the other hand aimed his camera at those people, places and things that were emotionally close to him.  He aimed at things deeply personal and from that look emerged a different kind of anthology of images. Those images are affectionate, spiritual and penetrating.  As compelling as Frank’s The Americans, Gowin’s Photographs speak more clearly to me.  There is an otherworldness, humor combined with solemnity of the everyday that is reverent and bestows  a visual consecration on the people he photographs.



Cook, Jno. Robert Frank’s America. Afterimage 9, Number 8 (1982).

Burgamy, Calvin. “Interview with Emmet Gowin”,   October 10, 2009.

Gall, Sally. “Emmet Gowin.”
Bombsite, Winter 1997, ART (accessed October 22, 2009)

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems.  San Francisco: City Lights Press, 1956.

Greenough, Sarah. Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans. Washington/Steidl:                                     National Gallery of Art, 2009.

Photographs,  Emmet Gowin, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1976.

Szarkowski,  John. Mirrors and Windows . (The reviews Szarkowski refers to were  published in Popular Photography (May 196O), and were written by Les Barry, Bruce Downes, John Durniak, Arthur Goldsmith. H. M. Kinzer, Charles Reynolds, and James   Zanuto, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978

Frank, Robert. The  Americans, Robert Frank. New York: Grove Press, 1959.

Szarkowski,  John. Mirrors and Windows. (The reviews Szarkowski refers to were

published in Popular Photography (May 196O), and were written by Les

Barry, Bruce    Downes, John Durniak, Arthur Goldsmith. H. M. Kinzer, Charles

Reynolds, and James Zanuto) New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978.

Wagner, Anne M. “According to What.” Artforum 45   (2006):

Wallis, Brian. Robert Frank: American Visions., Art in America 84 74.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass.  Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1904.

opening paragraph

whew. I’m almost done with the paper. here is the setup:


This research paper compares Robert Frank and his book The Americans to Emmet Gowin and his book Photographs. The theme that will be explored is the concept of family and the influence of that concept on their work.  I will be examining Frank’s photographic interpretation of his larger adopted American family and Gowin’s photographs of his wife and her family.

Robert Frank’s point of view was that of an outsider looking in.  Born in Switzerland and naturalized in the United States, Frank traveled the United States seeking, not only to escape Nazi persecution in Europe, but to gain success as an artist.  He had been working in commercial photography in Switzerland and, according to Frank, was “influenced by the standards of perfection in graphics and photography.”  Experience in advertising gave him a strong sense of aesthetics as well as a vast working knowledge of the technical aspects of camera operation. (Greenbough pg. 9)   Another important skill Frank perfected in Switzerland was taught to him by an advertising photographer, Michael Wolgesinger.   It was the technique of printing 2 1/4 contact prints of his negatives. Wolfensinger showed him how to glue the contacts on cards and group them by subject and theme; this provided a valuable method of evaluating the photographs and weighing their relative strength, significance, and relationship.  (pg. 11)  This technique would influence and assist him as he struggled to sequence, logically and emotionally, 83 images he selected out of 28,000 for his publication